Fresh off her recent Academy Award nomination for “Mank”, Amanda Seyfried and Netflix team up once again in “Things Heard & Seen”. This slow-burning supernatural thriller comes from the writing, directing, and producing duo of Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman. Based on Elizabeth Brundage’s 2016 best-selling novel “All Things Cease to Appear”, the movie advertised itself as an old-fashioned haunted house tale (check out the trailer to see what I mean). In reality it’s a fraught marriage story full of dark secrets and ugly revelations.
Set in the early 1980s, Seyfried plays Catherine Clare, an art restorer who has a happy life in Manhattan. She reluctantly agrees to leave it all behind after her husband George (James Norton) gets a teaching job at a small college in upstate New York. The couple and their 4-year-old daughter Franny (Ana Sophia Heger) move into an old farmhouse nestled in the rural Hudson Valley near the small town of Chosen. George begins his tenure as an art history professor, quickly climbing up the social ranks with his students and the faculty. Meanwhile Catherine is left at home, isolated but perhaps not as alone as she thinks.
The metaphor-heavy story starts taking shape once Catherine begins finding old items around the house that belonged to the previous owners – some yellowed sheet music, a tattered old book, a mysterious ring. She also begins noticing weird occurrences, mostly at night – flickering lights, a strange smell, eerie shimmers of light. It all compels her to dig into the history of the home which turns out to have an ugly and violent past. Other people in the area seem to know what went down there including two local brothers (Alex Neustaedter and Jack Gore) who the Clare’s hire to work around the place. Even George seems to know more than he’s letting on.
And much like the house, George begins showing signs that he too has some secrets of his own. The facade of a loving and tender family man from the early scenes crumbles and is replaced by a smug and egocentric narcissist who’s more interested in his notoriety at the college and a particular young stable worker named Willis (Natalia Dyer). As Catherine and George inevitably grow further apart, simmering old tensions that they’ve been able to navigate in the past now resurface to add more strain on the relationship. For example, Catherine is a devout Catholic while George is a condescending atheist. He wants to medicate their daughter because of her nightmares, while she thinks Franny is too young.
Rhea Seehorn (“Better Call Saul”), F. Murray Abraham, and Karen Allen help fill in pieces of the story. Seehorn plays a colleague from the University who befriends Catherine but doesn’t quite trust George. “I get suspicious when students worship their professors.” Abraham plays the head of George’s department and a firm believer in spirits (and not the drinking kind). And the underused but much welcomed Allen plays a real estate broker with some key insight into the mysteries of the Clare’s house.
Sadly, the film’s nicest surprise leads to one of its biggest problems. At its core this is very much a stinging relationship drama centered around a souring marriage. While not all of Catherine and George’s choices makes sense (a couple are downright baffling), Pulcini and Berman chronicle the slow collapse of their once happy union with a shrewd and meticulous hand. But by making that the chief focus, the movie ends up shortchanging the supernatural element. The story hints at things like good spirits, malevolent spirits, curses, etc., but they’re never explored in a meaningful way and in many ways feel disconnected from the story.
“Everything in the natural world has a counterpart in the spiritual realm.” It’s a line from Abraham’s character that teases the supernatural angle the movie is apparently going for. Unfortunately this side of the story feels stitched in and finding meaning in it proves to be a chore. So we’re left wondering and digging for metaphors. Fortunately the relationship drama/thriller stuff plays well and is driven by a committed Amanda Seyfried along with a fun supporting cast. It doesn’t all make sense, but it has a rather nasty edge to it that keeps you locked in. It makes the film entertaining enough and as engaging as it is flawed. “Things Heard & Seen” premieres today (April 29th) on Netflix.
VERDICT – 3 STARS